About this site

In 1998, I began work on a project which would fill much of my spare time for the next twelve years. The initial aim was to provide a new translation and study of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a labour of love that was eventually completed 2005, and put on the market in 2007.

Much of what is on this website today began life as the 'off-cuts and afterthoughts' from the book, and subsequently developed into a series of free-standing articles on each of the Mabinogion tales. In these articles I have attempted to present a synopsis of the latest academic thinking on the texts in question, as well as developing a few ideas of my own. I have included references to the former so, at the very least, I hope this site may offer a few bibliographic pointers for students of the Mabinogion.

For the so-called Three Romances, I have included an introductory analysis of the Welsh Romance as a generic phenomenon, as well as articles on the individual rhamantau themselves. Here, I have considered problems such as the ‘native’ pre-Galfredian Arthurian tradition, the transformative work of the Caerleon school (the circle which included Geoffrey of Monmouth and Caradog of Llancarfan) and of course the time-honoured Mabinogionfrage (i.e. the nature of the relationship between the Welsh Romance and their Continental counterparts). I also introduce the theories of the medievalist Anne Wilson, whose paradigm of the ‘magical plot’ I have found useful as a means of unlocking the paradoxes of the Arthurian Romance.

Likewise, I have included a general introduction to the Four Branches, as well as a piece on each of Branches themselves. This section as a whole is somewhat shorter than the section on the Three Romances, largely because it has been covered in more detail in the published book. More material, including full translations of each Branch (with annotated commentary) and a bibliographic essay can be found on the sister site, www.mabinogi.net. What I have included here is a summary of my investigations – discussing the source traditions from which this tribal-historical synthesis was composed, but also considering some of the more contemporary concerns of the medieval literary artist involved. Among these, I have found a number of typological references to figures and events from the author’s own lifetime. This particular use of history as a means of looking ‘through the glass darkly’ towards the present and the future was, as we will see, an accepted function of certain modes of Welsh narrative prose. We might consider the Welsh word brut – derived as it was from the Brut Y Brenhinedd, the vernacular translation of Geoffrey’s Historia. Significantly, this went on to develop a range of secondary meanings which included ‘prophesy’ as well as ‘story’ or ‘romance’. My own work on the Four Branches has been predicated on a recognition of this view of history, prophesy and narration as interrelated modalities – the basis, I believe, on which this text was composed and understood by its primary audience.

Culhwch and Olwen, Llud and Llefelys and the Dreams of Macsen and Rhonabwy have sometimes been referred to as the ‘independent native tales’. I have treated each of these texts as an individual entity, and not offered any common introduction. In each case, I have sketched an outline of the work itself as well as a representative sample of the scholarship relating to the text in question. Inevitably, not all of these tales have received an equal treatment. Llud and The Dream of Macsen Wledig are both relatively short texts which, rightly or wrongly, have not received as much critical interest as the other Mabinogion tales. My treatment of them here tends to reflect this. The Dream of Rhonabwy, on the other hand, is a fascinating and highly sophisticated work which appears to offer that rarest of things – a metatextual reflection on the Mabinogion tradition (I use the term loosely) from the viewpoint of a medieval Welsh reader. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted considerable academic interest, which I have done my best to summarise. Culhwch probably deserves a slightly longer discussion than I have given it here – and in future I intend to return to this text to investigate its relationship to the later Romances, and the applicability (or otherwise) of the magical plot paradigm to this full-length prose examplar of the ‘native’ Arthurian tradition. There is more too to be said about the state of play in terms of academic investigation of this important text. So far, I have confined my discussion to the readings of two different scholars – Stephen Knight and Joan Radnor – the apparent differences between whom I have attempted to reconcile under the inclusive (and characteristically medieval) mantle of the ‘carnivalesque’. A full length analysis of the scholarship of Culhwch and Olwen, as well as an episode-by-episode analysis of the text itself is probably the main substantial addition I intend to make to this website at some point in the future.

As the great Northrop Frye once put it: “the first thing the literary critic has to do is read literature, to make an inductive survey of his own field and let his critical principles shape themselves solely out of his knowledge of that field”. The articles on this website are the raw material of my own attempts to develop critical principles specific to the Mabinogion corpus. Working inductively, as Professor Frye commended, is a necessarily bottom-up process, and I have little to offer at this stage by way of a grand synthesis or general theory. Nonetheless, it has become apparent that Mabinogion texts were cohered by more than just a shared relationship to a common body of tradition. They can be regarded as ‘a literature’ and studied as such. This was not a static tradition nor a closed system, and part of what I have attempted to trace is the trajectory of its historical evolution, as well as its relationships with other literatures. However, even within this ‘ongoing literary conversation’, I believe it may be possible to identify a distinctive set of conceptual and stylistic principles which characterise the tradition as a whole. Once these have been better understood and more clearly defined, a more systematic criticism of the Mabinogion texts then becomes possible: one which is more closely informed by the ideals that motivated the medieval literary artist, rather than being a mere reflection (as Frye would put it) of the ‘conventions, memories and prejudices’ of the modern critic.

Will Parker
August 2010

Throughout most of this site, I have used the excellent translation of the Mabinogion texts by Sionedd Davies (2007). Elsewhere, I have used the Jones and Jones Everyman Mabinogion (1949), which is referenced in the notes simply through the abbreviation Mab. followed by the relevant page number. Quotations from the Four Branches are taken from my own translation.